My Journey to Graduating in Six Semesters

Going going… graduated!

I sat at a desk in front of my beloved 13 inch laptop, my companion through these past three years of college. With my cursor cautiously placed over the send button, I reconsidered my decision one last time. The email I hesitated to send contained a request to change something Berkeley calls your “Expected Graduation Term”, or “EGT” for short. More important than the words in the email was the attachment: a signed and dated form confirming my request to graduate in Spring of 2021, an entire school year early. A week later my request was confirmed.

Once in a while, students decide to graduate early from four-year universities like UC Berkeley. Oftentimes, people don’t know that this is possible! Interestingly, there are few rules about how many semesters you must complete to graduate from UC Berkeley. Instead, there is a set of more specific regulations about how much coursework you must complete to graduate– a subtle distinction. The structure of these regulations (and many major program’s class schedules) results in most UC Berkeley students graduating in four years, or eight semesters. Some a little more, some a little less.

I study Geography, which unlike some majors on campus doesn’t have many prerequisite courses. It also doesn’t require that you complete the three prerequisites it does have in any particular order. As a result, I was able to begin taking upper division courses intended for juniors and seniors in my third semester. For lots of majors, that’s just not possible. Many of my Geography courses not only count towards my major, but also towards distribution aka “breadth” requirements. I started at Cal with about a sixth of the total units (a metric for counting coursework completion) I needed to graduate, which also helped. Having these credits was a point of privilege, since students whose schools don’t offer the AP and International Baccalaureate courses I took lack the opportunity to obtain them.

However, if you are someone who comes in with extra credits and you pick a major where it’s possible, you could end up done with your graduation requirements before four years are up. For me, knowing I could was the biggest factor in deciding to graduate early. Another important reason was that while Berkeley has done an amazing job of helping students find communities online, missing my friends and housemates made me realize that I feel academically ready to graduate, and that leaving behind my friends is what deters me. That said, not everyone feels that way, and not everyone should graduate early! If you think it sounds like a crazy, bad idea for you, it probably is. This isn’t blanket advice, it’s just another option. I am incredibly lucky to have this opportunity, but I had to give up my dreams of double majoring, ascending to club president, and walking across the stage with my friends in order to do it. Still, I know that for me it was the best decision I could make. This Fall I’ve decided to apply to Master’s programs in Europe, where I have close family and have always wanted to attend school. I couldn’t be happier with my decision. I am of the opinion that no matter how many years you’ll spend at Berkeley, they’ll be years you won’t forget! read more

Tales From Office Hours

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,”

It was office hours.

Office hours are the time set aside each week by professors, graduate student instructors, and teaching assistants with the explicit intent of answering students’ questions. Often, in weeks where no exams loom near or assignments are due, office hours are often poorly attended, or even empty. Although I imagine some busy instructors are happy to have this time free, I know many more are simply lonely, waiting for their students to come by.

Office hours are not only the reason that I passed calculus my first semester, they are why I declared my major, physical geography, and why I love it. Since office hours are usually associated with needing some help with course material, today I bring you three of my favorite humorous tales from a place of desperation.

Moral Support
In the middle of my second semester at Berkeley, I attended the office hours of my first ever earth science professor while amidst a crisis of faith. I was enrolled in calculus and physics, intending to major somewhere in geosciences, and struggling to keep up with or enjoy my more technical courses. But still, I loved earth science. So what to do, stick it out or change my intended major?

The professor did two things which struck me, first, he listened intently and empathized. Secondly, he encouraged me to slow down. Graduating a semester early? Why would I do that, he said. He told me I should take Shakespeare, and Spanish, and dance classes. This was the only time in my life where I would have all those opportunities equally available to me. And it was okay not to take calculus if I hated it, it didn’t mean I was dumb, he reaffirmed me. When I came back to campus the next fall, he remembered my face, and stopped me in the hall of the Earth and Planetary Science department’s building. read more

Dear Hiring Manager

About a week ago I was walking down the street, a block away from my house, when I found a thousand piece puzzle in a box on the sidewalk. The picture on it was of a pretty ocean like scene, and in the margins of the picture on the front of the box it said: “Magic Puzzle 3D” and “Magic 3D Effect!”. I kept walking.

A minute later, the thought occurred to me: I like puzzles. And so I turned around, walked halfway down the block, and collected the magic 3D ocean puzzle for myself. These are corona times after all, and there’s not much to do outside of school work and scrolling through my phone. When I got home I dumped the puzzle out on the floor next to my bed, and quickly realized its true scale. The thing was massive!

With not much left to do for the day, and having already created a mess by dumping out a thousand pieces of 3D ocean magic on my floor, I started sorting. The difficulty of this puzzle, I quickly realized, was not the number of pieces, but the fact that each different fish was depicted anywhere from 1-4 times in different places. The challenge of this is that it means my sorting of the grayish green pieces into one pile and the reddish blue ones into another pile did not correspond to putting pieces which would necessarily go together anywhere near each other. I’ve probably spent an hour on the puzzle every day for the past week, and I think 2-3 of those days were just sorting by color and sifting through for edge pieces.

A pile of mostly blue puzzle pieces on a wooden floor. Behind is a cardboard puzzle box propped up on a chair.

As I write this, I’ve maybe put together about two hundred of the pieces, despite a week’s worth of effort. It’s possible I’m simply terrible at puzzles, but I think the abundance of blue ocean and repeated fish probably just make this one really hard. That said, it is starting to come together.

A partially completed puzzle on a wooden floor
Nowhere near done…

A thousand piece puzzle is a massive project that comes without instructions. It’s up to you to figure out a strategy, and fit the pieces together to create a collective image. Considering I’m spending the majority of my free time these days either writing job applications or on this puzzle, the similarities between the two have started to strike me. Each one is about creating an image from disjunct pieces. You have to create the image to market yourself, they don’t sell the puzzle by putting a picture of a pile of puzzle pieces on the front. They sell it with the final product, a scene filled with glamorous fish, and they market it’s 3D ocean magic effect. In the coming weeks and months, I hope the hiring managers reading my CV are convinced when I include pictures of dolphins in the corner and list “professional puzzle maker” under my work experience.

Bears On and Off Campus

 

The author in backpacking gear standing on side of trail with dramatic granite rock features and a waterfall in the background
Descending into Yosemite National Park on our last day

A few weeks ago I got a phone call from my friend Katie. I answered, thinking I would catch up with a friend and former housemate, but instead she led me in a direction I didn’t expect. On that call, she convinced me to leave Berkeley in five days and hike the John Muir Trail with her, a famously beautiful (and difficult) trail which connects Yosemite National Park to Mt.Whitney, the tallest point in the contiguous United States. The traditional route sends backpackers Southbound, giving them time to gradually adjust to the high elevations and tackle the most difficult terrain later in the trip, however that route is notoriously difficult to find permits for. With a few adjustments to the itinerary, including going “NOBO” (Northbound) and beginning almost 25 miles South of Mt.Whitney, I paid a visit to Recreation.gov to purchase the $11.00 permit for my three week vacation! All in all, we took 18 days to cover 240 miles of trail.

Katie is a co-President of the Cal Hiking and Outdoor Society, better known as CHAOS. Or in other words, she does this stuff all the time. While I do love backpacking, it’s not usually my MO to drop everything and head to the woods for three weeks. However, due to various life obligations, this was plausibly a once in a lifetime chance (or at least a once-in-the-next-five-years chance), so off to the woods I went!

During the school year, CHAOS operates a gearshed which loans everything from backpacks and bear cans to climbing shoes out to anyone who pays the $10 lifetime membership fee. For anyone interested in epic trips and/or low cost adventure, it’s truly an amazing student organization: https://www.chaosberkeley.org/.

View down a dirt trail with large rocks on either side. Large lake with islands in the distance surrounded by snow-capped peaks and clear blue sky.
Another day, another beautiful lake

While on the trail I was lucky enough to encounter several fellow bears, including Cal alums, other students, and even a faculty member in my own department. Usually backpackers are pretty friendly with one another, so after chatting with a group camped nearby us one night, I discovered one of them to be a UC Berkeley professor. I always knew the culture of outdoor enthusiasm shared by many in Berkeley Geography was one of my favorite things about it, but this interaction really drove that point home. Interestingly enough, that was an even more bear filled evening when a medium sized brown bear came strolling through our camp a few hours later.

When I’m Asked About Race on a Tour

As a Berkeley Campus Ambassador, I am an employee of Public Affairs paid to represent and advocate for the university while telling my own Berkeley story. One thing I love about my job is the autonomy I have to be transparent with visitors, and to honestly answer questions that are widely considered “difficult” from a public affairs perspective. I take pride in the fact that since I was hired in February 2019, I have yet to see UC Berkeley Visitor & Parent Services attempt to censor the honesty of Campus Ambassadors, especially considering we fill a role which at a school without such autonomy might amount to that of a propagandist.

The first time a Black mom on my tour asked me about the experience of Black students at Berkeley, I told her everything I could as someone who is White. I was honest in saying that Black students are underrepresented, since only 3% of UC Berkeley’s students are Black, compared to 5.8% of Californians and 8.3% of Berkeley residents. What I could not tell her was if Berkeley would support her kids and make them feel at home just like it did for me, something I do confidently for most parents of white students.

The greatest reassurance I could offer was to describe the campus resources and organizations for Black students, mentioning the Black Student Union (BSU), various Black Fraternities and Sororities, and the Black professional associations I knew of. I would also have mentioned the African American theme housing program, Berkeley’s semester exchange with the historically Black Howard University, and the Fannie Lou Hamer Black Resource Center. This mom’s response has stayed with me: “Thank you, I didn’t expect you to be so honest”. I assume she had asked this question on other campus tours, and I can only imagine the suite of likely responses.

I’m choosing to tell this story today because I have a platform, and as a faithful representative and advocate for the university, Ambassadors are supposed to personify Berkeley’s excellence. To me, this means responding to the call of groups like Berkeley’s Black Student Union to “Actively advocate and partake in dismantling White supremacy,” and not letting the reality in which honesty requires me to tell Black moms that their kids might not be afforded the social privileges I was while starting college, feel normal. With an eye one injustice which is particularly evident on college campuses, my newest protest sign reads:

“Repeal CA Prop 209, Equity in education now”.

Under California Prop 209, Affirmative Action (a set of policies widely considered responsible for diversifying a wide range of public institutions from 1961-1996) was banned, and minority status would no longer be a legal consideration in California university admissions.

Sadly, I have sometimes witnessed a deeply disturbing student apathy towards racial issues and social justice on campus. However, I have also been lucky enough to meet and be inspired by the type of Berkeley students who instead listens, acknowledges their privileges, and shows up as an ally. These are the students who make me optimistic, demonstrating that all of us have the capacity to become or at least actively approach the later. If you’re reading this, I hope I can impress upon you like I would with visitors on a tour, more than pat statements about Berkeley’s values and quest for equity, and instead be honest and acknowledge that both the administration and the student body have a moral obligation to actively disrupt a criminal justice and political system which continues to racialize people of color, and become better allies to Black and marginalized communities. I believe this change will begin with students.

Until that happens, I will not be the only one discussing this honestly. Sending your kids off to college is scary enough, stop contributing to a society in which the honest answers of reassurance I give to touring parents of Black students may not be as comforting as the similarly honest answers I give parents of White students. As Campus Ambassadors, our job has always been to honestly share the best Berkeley has to offer, now we must shape and become that.

In the Spirit of Uncertainty

Summer is an important time for college students. Many of us work, seek out new experiences, take internships, travel or continue our studies. It’s a time to enjoy the limited responsibilities of University while escaping the academic pressure, and focus on things you care about. 

Prior to COVID-19 cancellations, my Plan A for Summer 2020 was to complete a research internship fully funded by the German Academic Exchange (DAAD) studying tropical corals in Germany (sounds cool, doesn’t it?). This, unfortunately, was the first of my plans to be cancelled. Thankfully, I anticipated this, and thought of Plan B: spending my Summer contemplating conifers at UC Berkeley Forestry Camp, a required program for Forestry majors at Cal which focuses on developing the practical skills for a career in forestry or natural resource management. When Forestry Camp applicants were notified that the program would likely not occur, I thought of Plan C: Take summer classes and work in my lab on campus. Yet, Summer classes are being held online, and as the days go by, it seems more and more plausible that there will be no open lab to return to.  read more

Surviving and Thriving Under Shelter-In-Place

On March 20th, nine days ago as I write this, the state of California issued a shelter-in-place  directive in response to COVID-19, radically changing the way state residents live and work. For a university with about 27,000 California residents amongst its undergraduates (https://pages.github.berkeley.edu/OPA/our-berkeley/student-enrollments.html), most of the student body is now subject to this new way of life. 

This directive followed announcements from UC Berkeley that classes would be held online for the remainder of the semester, with no in person instruction, prompting many students to leave their places of residence in Berkeley and return to family in far flung parts of the state or world. For those who left and those who remain, these are strange times.  read more

What is Undergraduate Research, and Why is it Amazing?

Undergraduate research happens all over campus. In any department, students of any major, age, or career goals can be found researching. Berkeley is a unique place to be an undergraduate researcher because we are guaranteed to have some of the most accomplished faculty and promising graduate students in your field (regardless of what it is).

Girl in lab coat, face mask, and protective plastic apron
Me in my appropriate personal protective equipment for working with acids.

There are lots of different ways to find research positions on campus, but one of the most popular is URAP (the Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program). URAP allows students to complete an application and be matched with faculty projects, while receiving academic units for their time. I found my current research position through URAP two years ago as an undeclared Freshman in FPF, which is proof that research isn’t always an exclusive club made just for upperclassmen. Some departments also sponsor paid research positions with stipends or work-study, and there are more scholarships for undergraduate research projects provided by Berkeley’s Office of Research & Undergraduate Scholarships (OURS). read more

The Day I Finally Knew

When I began my Berkeley journey, the last thing on my mind were the friendships and connections I would build along the way.

As a freshman, I believed that I was here to learn, build skills, and graduate.

I spent High School so focused on the distant future that when it suddenly came, and college appeared on the horizon, I was completely unprepared. Growing up in California, an obvious action was applying to California’s two public university systems: UCs and CSUs. However, beyond those respective applications, I didn’t put in much thought to where I applied. At that time UC Berkeley wouldn’t even have made the top ten on a list of schools I could see myself attending, so when it became my best choice four months later, I was unsure what to do. read more

My Love of McCone Hall

The view from the southwest corner of the fifth floor balcony, McCone Hall

From a quick count of a campus map, you’ll see that there are over fifty stand-alone buildings on UC Berkeley’s main campus. Among these are libraries, lecture halls, buildings with research centers and labs, ten story buildings, tiny buildings, and buildings famous for getting students lost in their mazes (I’m talking to you Dwinelle Hall…). From most points on campus you can spot buildings spanning several eras of architecture, sometimes with ages separated by a hundred years or more. Currently the oldest building on campus is South Hall, built in 1873, and the newest is Berkeley Way West built in 2018. read more